The artifacts in the 9/11 museum are reminiscent of the thousands of people who perished, but also – as a sergeant’s boots pulled from the rubble show – the lucky few who survived.
The uppers of the black leather service boots are scuffed, their laces are worn. Their soles completely disintegrated.
“They went through an ordeal, you can tell that instantly,” said Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum.
But for 28-year-old JJ McLoughlin, they represent a miracle.
“It’s pretty amazing that someone caught under 220 stories wearing these boots came out alive,” he said.
This someone was the father of JJ, the Port Authority police sergeant. John McLoughlin, one of 18 people to emerge from the wreckage of the World Trade Center after the two buildings collapsed.
“It took a heroic effort of hundreds of people to get my father out,” said JJ McLoughlin. “There was a lot of bad stuff that day, but it’s a play that you can look at and actually think, ‘Hey, there’s something positive. “”
McLoughlin, on duty in Midtown when the first plane hit, had years of experience at the World Trade Center. He rushed to the scene to organize the evacuation efforts with a group of four junior officers. McLoughlin was leading them through the underground plaza between the two towers when the South Tower collapsed, burying them under 30 feet of twisted and burning rubble.
Only McLoughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno survived the 22 hours it took to extract them from the wreckage – after an epic multi-agency effort that began when a pair of US Marines heard the faint calls to Jimeno’s help. Dozens of cops, firefighters and paramedics cheered as they helped pull McLoughlin’s stretcher out of the hole.
“This rescue has really boosted the morale of the nation,” Ramirez said. “No one knew then that there would only be one more human being found alive. “
The incredible story received the Hollywood treatment in the 2006 film “World Trade Center” directed by Oliver Stone, starring Nicolas Cage as McLoughlin.
“My dad is not a very sentimental guy,” JJ said. Over the ensuing months of recovery, he saved only two items from his 9/11 uniform: his sergeant’s shield and his boots.
Follow our coverage of the 20th anniversary of September 11 here:
“He credits the boots for saving his feet and allowing him to walk again,” the son explained. It was sheer luck that McLoughlin was on patrol and wearing his Rocky public service boots that day, rather than regular shoes for his desk shift.
“Where he was run over, his dress shoes would not have offered any protection,” JJ said. “But his boots did. “
McLoughlin, now 69, is “a private person,” his son said. “I think he appreciates the museum, but it’s not emotionally something he wants to endure.”
So when the McLoughlins were cleaning out closets last year as they prepared to sell the family home in Goshen, NY, it was JJ who saved his father’s 9/11 boots from the landfill.
“My dad said, ‘Throw them out’ – he found no use for them,” JJ said. “I’m not the most sentimental person either, but I think I understood that they were a little more important than maybe him. “
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he contacted the closed museum and offered to donate the boots to its permanent collection, joining at least 20 other pairs of shoes – moccasins, slippers, sneakers, stiletto heels – already in his Treasury.
“Each of these objects is a testament to someone’s very specific experience,” Ramirez said.
“In this case, it’s not about an escape story, but a story of rushing in to help – then the dramatic story of the rescue,” she said.
Ramirez compared the more than 70,000 artifacts collected by the museum to words in a dictionary: the building blocks of new stories that deepen our understanding of 9/11 and its aftermath.
“We are constantly building our vocabulary as historians,” she said. “Every time something goes into the collection, we add a puzzle piece. “
The museum also aims to honor the 2,977 people who were killed in the attacks, she said.
“We try to make sure that these statistics, no matter how bold and gruesome and telegraphic they are, never rob us of the humanity behind every issue,” Ramirez said.
To fulfill this mission, curators continue to collect ordinary and revealing items – a childhood teddy bear, a pair of glasses, a half-finished piece of knitting – that speak of the lives of those who are lost.
“When families give us these items, it is an act of faith – faith in education and faith that we can keep the memory alive through the generations. “
Adding McLoughlin’s boots to the collection, Ramirez said: “I feel like another candle has been lit. ”